Our wait for a telephone was just a few years. At the time, in the early 90s, we knew of families who were on a waiting list for close upon a decade. I was at school when Sri Lanka Telecom had installed the rotary device. Like the first mobile phones from Motorola to hit Sri Lanka, the unit weighed about the same as and was more akin to gym equipment than anything remotely akin to what is today considered a phone.
I was enthralled, and dialled, for no reason than to just use the telephone, a friend I had seen not more than an hour ago. He lived in Mount Lavinia. We both had five-digit phone numbers. We were both excited to talk at length about nothing of consequence before my father subtley reminded me that the call was expensive. It was the first time I learnt of peak and off-peak charges. It wasn’t yet possible to just dial an international number. That required prior approval and an up-front payment, in addition to hundreds of rupees a minute, depending on the country dialled.
There was no Internet. There was no web. Smartphones hadn’t been invented. Social media hadn’t been invented. I didn’t own or even have access to a computer. It was a purely analogue world, with the only sign of digital made by Casio and strapped to my wrist. The few conversations I had, at the time, were always prefaced by a few minutes of sheer wonder that the call connected, followed by amazement we were talking over a telephone.
The godayata magic moments continued after I was given my first PC, with access to what at the time was a web just six years old. Before this, and even around this time, there were several bulletin board systems that Sri Lankans had set up which I had heard about, but never once accessed. The entire processing power of that first computer is now exceeded, many times over, by the phone in my pocket.
Back then, the promise of the web – to connect people, no matter where they were geographically located – was fresh, wonderful and exciting especially for someone who had never left the country or travelled much within. I was drawn to the early Yahoo and Alta Vista. My father started what at the time was a very expensive subscription to the British PC Magazine, which every month, bundled a CD-ROM full of content ranging from videos and photos to trial programmes (Shareware). This was also a time in my life where I was an avid gamer, going for first-person shoot ‘em ups and flight simulations (Quake, Duke Nukem 3D and Super Eurofighter 2000 were firm favourites) overrole-playing or strategy games.
I got into dissembling my computer and putting it back together again, in the process learning about integrated circuits, motherboards, electronics and how everything worked. If something worked perfectly, I broke it, but only to figure out why things ran without a hitch. But it was the web that I kept returning to the most. Having taught myself the HTML – I set out to build my own websites and hosted the first on Geocities.
I cannot recall anything close to the toxicity now taken for granted in any social media platform. I signed up with Hotmail, where I was delighted to get all of 2Mb as storage. A few years later, just before I left for University in the late 90s, I signed up with Yahoo, which at the time offered twice as much storage. In Delhi, I used ramshackle computers in cybercafes to access Yahoo – almost exclusively to write to my parents. Occasionally, and as a treat to myself, I used to go to the British Council in New Delhi and pay dearly, for half an hour, to use a computer (Compaq’s, if I recall correctly) that looked clean, smelt fresh and worked without frequent crashes. I still have those emails, with those two accounts. But for Archchi and Seeya, I still used to handwrite and post aerogrammes.
It was not until 2004, with the introduction of Gmail featuring at the time a mind-boggling 1Gb of storage, that emails weren’t something one sent and almost immediately deleted. I recall how at the time, the few invitations one got to share with others to join Gmail became a high valued currency of their own. In Australia and doing my Masters at the time, I recall a friend who even inveigled a date based on the promise of sharing an invite to Gmail if it went well.
The web by the mid-2000s was already very different from what it was in the 90s. Netscape and Microsoft had had their browser wars. Chrome hadn’t yet been developed. I preferred Netscape, but everything at the University was designed to run only on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The iPhone was still many years away, but I had a Nokia phone that could take photos and video – the sort of pixelated junk that today would be considered art, if any of it survived. I got into blogging around this time, joining a small community on Kottu.org – a blog aggregator that is around even today.
By 2008, based on a hunch that mobile phones would in years to come dominate access to web content, I created the country’s first Facebook page for a media platform and also mobile-specific versions of the site. A YouTube video of my old Nokia 3110c accessing a text-only version of a website on its tiny, low-resolution colour screen never fails to bring a smile to my face. We have come a very long way technically but regressed in the tone, timbre and tenor of public communications, conversations and content creation.
Though often asked, I don’t quite know what the next 30 years of the web holds. If the past three decades have been anything to go by, it is an entirely futile task to envision today what connectivity and digital content will be like in 2049. If I’m around then, I will miss even more the sound of modems connecting to the internet – a cacophony of communications protocols agreeing to be nice to each other, rendered loudly through both a tiny and tinny speaker that made it impossible to connect on the sly, or quickly.
I will still remember my parents asking me to disconnect from the Internet so that they could make a call. I will remember, but not miss the relatives who said they could never call my parents, because the phone seemed to be always engaged. I will sorely miss the indestructibility of old Nokia phones, which connected me through what are now rudimentary but far more meaningful ways to those I really wanted to be in touch with. I already miss – as I am sure most connected to the web in the 90s also do – the spirit of a large, essentially welcoming community, collegiality and an essential decency on it. The web then was entirely peripheral to life, society and politics, which is perhaps why it attracted only hobbyists, geeks, the very young or a much older demographic.
The creator of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is rightfully concerned that his creation has transmogrified in ways he never imagined or intended. Last week, celebrating the first three decades of the web, he issued a manifesto around how things must change. It is unclear if he will succeed because what was at first technical, with high barriers to access and mostly peripheral to socio-political life and civic identity, is now central to it.
The web Berners-Lee created really only exists as a network protocol.His original creation is now indistinguishable from what frames and fuels politics, elections, society, institutions, identity, communications, relations and community. To be alive, for billions, is to be connected.The next 30 years will see the effects of all this, for better and worse.